You can’t walk into a bookshop at the moment without risking a debilitating injury should a copy of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light fall on any of your soft tissue. The book, which numbers around a thousand pages, is a true Mantel-piece and almost as heavy. The book begins with an execution and there might be an upsurge in sales today because it’s a significant anniversary.
The fifteenth of May wasn’t a great day for Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII. Not, admittedly, nearly as bad as the day of her execution, the anniversary of which falls early next week. Her trial for treason began today in 1536 in front of a special jury. An extra special jury really. That’s because it had probably reached its verdict on the fourteenth of May. There are times when jurors, like the chairs of committees of inquiry, know exactly what is required of them. Henry VIII urgently needed to become a widower so that he could carry on his policy of serial monogamy, something which, owing to frequent practice, he was developing into a fine art.
Henry VIII, as even a visiting Martian probably knows, had six spouses. As it happens he’s only trotting after Richard Pryor and Jerry Lee Lewis, with seven each. Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Larry King and Lana Turner with eight, and the brand leader Zsa Zsa Gabor with nine. However, as far as we know, none of the aforementioned caused any of their cast-off spouses to be executed. If you have information to the contrary please phone 911.
However, there seems to be a notion abroad that Henry ordered the passing of all six of his wives because they were not able to provide him with a male heir. If that were actually the case he might well have stopped to consider that perhaps the problem did not lie with his spouses, but with the fact that he was shooting the next best things to blanks. But Kings, of course, don’t entertain such notions. They are not required to do so and no physician this side of the Hippocratic oath would be daft enough to suggest such a possibility to a monarch with a French executioner on speed dial.
But, the fact is that it’s not true anyway. First off, one of Henry’s six wives survived him. He died in 1547, she outlived him by a year, and by the way, is the most married English Queen, with four husbands of her own, three of whom pre-deceased her. In an Agatha Christie novel Poirot would have been all over Catherine Parr.
Secondly, Henry did actually produce a male heir. His son, Edward, was born to his third wife, Jane Seymour and acceded to the English throne on Henry’s death. The fact that he was young and sickly, died at the age of fifteen, and reigned for only six years, is neither here nor there. His half-sister Elizabeth, daughter of the unfortunate Anne Boleyn, more than made up for him. Good Queen Bess was way better than any English King and would have made a good Roman Emperor into the bargain. However, she might not have been such a good Dalai Lama.
The runners and riders in the King Henry VIII Challenge Cup—the challenge being not to cheese him off so much he had you beheaded—were as follows.
Catherine of Aragon, produced one female heir, Mary – divorced.
Ann Boleyn, produced one female heir, fooled around with anyone with a codpiece – decapitated
Jane Seymour (not to be confused with the person who portrayed Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) – produced male heir and paid for it with her life when she died shortly after childbirth.
Anne of Cleves, aka the ‘Fat Flanders Mare’. She failed to live up to Hans Holbein’s flattering portrait, lasted six months during which the marriage was not consummated. She was despatched to Chelsea with an annulment, was known thereafter as The King’s Beloved Sister, and had the last laugh when she outlived him and all his other Queens
Catherine Howard, failed to produce an heir and was also allegedly prone to a nicely turned doublet and hose. She was decapitated for having sex with her cousin.
Catherine Parr, reached the finishing post, as Queen, ahead of Henry, and therefore wins the Challenge Cup.
But is it any wonder why we are fascinated by the Tudors. Hilary Mantel will probably win three Booker Prizes without even having had to make anything up.
Bu,t as to whether Henry went through all his wives with an axe, come on people, the man wasn’t a monster, he only beheaded two of them.